Water tasting event in Berkeley Springs has added meaning this year

Feb. 16, 2014


Next year for the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting’s 25th anniversary, organizers plan to put on a “big splash,” no pun intended, said water master Arthur von Wiesenberger.
But coming on the heels of the tainted water crisis in nine Southern West Virginia counties last month, including Kanawha County, home of the state capital of Charleston, this year’s event, which will be held Friday and Saturday at the Country Inn in Berkeley Springs, should prove to be pretty interesting, too.
“The Charleston situation brought a lot of focus to water as a subject,” said the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based von Wiesenberger, who, early in the competition, brought water from the Beverly Hills tap of family friend Kirk Douglas to be judged in the contest in an effort to draw attention to the event.
“Ben Franklin said, ‘You only know the worth of water until the well is dry.’ We only look at water when there is a disaster and then the substance comes out of the tap becomes suspect.”
That’s not entirely true: 12 judges have been looking at water — tap, bottled, purified and sparkling — as part of the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting since the event began in 1991.
The event is part of the Winter Festival of Waters, established to attract business to the Eastern Panhandle spa town — which, tourism officials like to point out, has three times as many massage therapists than lawyers — during snowy months. In fact, both the town’s given name and incorporated title, Bath, hint at the soothing spring waters that have been utilized since the times of George Washington, an early visitor.
But, as von Wiesenberger noted, in those instances, the judges, generally members of the media or tourist industry that he coaches, look for attributes surrounding the look, taste, aroma and feel of the water.
“What makes water or gives water a more desirable attribute, than, say, other types is first of all an absence of certain things,” von Wiesenberger said.
That includes a lack of taste and aroma — “one doesn’t want to smell anything” — which in municipal water could be chlorine or algae.
That is not the case for the water in the nine southern counties, which was tainted with a chemical called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol when it leaked into the Elk River on Jan. 9, affecting 300,000 water customers.
Instead of the lack of aroma touted by von Wiesenberger, the water had — and according to some water customers, still retains — an odor of licorice that continues to make them reluctant to use the liquid for drinking or cooking.
Immediately upon hearing of the crisis, water tasting co-founder Jeanne Mozier, the vice president of Travel Berkeley Springs, knew this could affect the event, which has international participants as well as the caché to give winners the ability to sell their water to be bottled under other business’s labels.
“The first thing that occurred to me was, ‘Oh my gosh, we need to get out in front of this,'” Mozier said. “It was obvious what was going to happen. Nobody is saying it’s Charleston water. It’s West Virginia water.”
Mozier implemented a couple of items to address the issue. First, any entity submitting water will be asked to sign a clean water pledge, available on the event’s informative website, berkeleysprings.com/water.
“We created the clean water pledge as our way of saying we’re committed to clean water,” Mozier added. “We’re going to have everyone take the clean water pledge who comes to the tasting, because we know how important it is.”
Secondly, the seminar portion of the event that takes place Friday will include a panel discussion featuring experts who will address the threats to drinking water as well as solutions.
One of those experts will be water consultant Henry Hidell, chairman of Hidell International near Boston.
In spite of the recent incident in Southern West Virginia, the United States has the most drinkable tap water of any large nation on the planet, Hidell said.
“Potable water is an extremely difficult commodity in emerging nations, particularly such as India, China, southeast Asia in general, and certainly Africa,” Hidell added.
Hidell should know. He recently spent eight years living in Mumbai, India, formerly known as Bombay.
“Water there is undrinkable. They have to have bottled or they try to filter it. In a city like Bombay, you only get water for two hours a day and this has to be stored in tanks around the house. I’ve been in Bombay when they had 15 days of water in reservoirs and the monsoons would come and everybody has another year’s worth of water.
“And if they don’t come, you have a major humanitarian crisis.”
As far as the water crisis, which happened when the chemical seeped out of a tank kept by Freedom Industries upstream of the intake to the West Virginia American Water Co., Hidell, who has spent time in the area, said the situation never should have happened.
“The striking fact that is that it got distributed to 300,000 people,” he said. “Had we had appropriate monitoring, that would never have entered the treatment side and never distributed into the mains. That is a massive failure.”
Also, he added, in spite of the United States’ otherwise relatively good record of getting water to residents, most municipal water companies have to deal with an aging infrastructure. And the truth is, many Americans drink bottled water for a variety of reasons, at least in part because they do not like the chlorination used to sterilize what comes out of the tap.
Some customers might think they already pay enough for water, but not Hidell.
“Americans’ water services to houses is entirely subsidized by government subsidies,” Hidell said. “If they paid the real cost of what it costs to treat water, we would hear screaming and complaints.
“But we need to beef up the infrastructures and Americans need to pay what water costs.”
In spite of the serious situation in southern West Virginia, however, the tone at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting generally has been fun through the years. The judges vote on certain attributes of the water and assign points, and a winner is selected in the various categories.
Most entrants mail their water in, which in 2014 will be from places such as Bangkok, Thailand; Santa Ana, Calif. and Pont-Viau, Quebec.
“But there is a cadre of people who come every year,” Mozier said. “They just love the event. Last year, this is a great story, a guy drove his water from Emporia, Kansas. He was the plant manager.”
The water won in the municipal category, making it the “best-tasting water in the world,” and then the man got back in his car and headed the 1,100-plus miles home to beat a snowstorm, to be later visited by the festival’s public relations manager, Jill Klein Rone.
“He was very pleased, and then Jill went out to present the award,” Mozier added. “They had a huge celebration. The governor was there, a senator was there. There was a big celebration for their winning.”
When the municipal water of Los Angeles won, city officials “hung a 30-story banner on the side of the water building in downtown Los Angeles. It’s amazing what people do.”
In fact, Mozier estimated, at least 30 bottled water companies have redesigned the products’ labels to include the gold medal seal from Berkeley Springs.
In addition to the seminars that take place on Friday, the water tasting begins Saturday afternoon and lasts until the evening. Judges have to test about 20 municipal and bottled waters each, and then whatever entrants come in for purified and sparkling, using crackers to cleanse their palates in between sips.
As for the municipal entries, those are an important part of the tasting. Von Wiesenberger joked that at the ripe old age of 97, “Kirk Douglas’ water seems to be working for him.”
“That was a fun idea,” he added. “We tried it once to start the conversation. Of course, it’s not just Kirk Douglas’ water, it’s also Demi Moore’s and everyone else’s. They all lived in the same neighborhood. But he handed it to me, which was the difference.”
Water from the nine affected West Virginia counties will not be entered this year, Mozier said. She hopes that will change in the future, pointing out that Charleston won in the municipal category several times in the tasting’s early years, including in 1991, 1993 and 1994.
“They had excellent water.”